The most remarkable thing to happen June 6th was not that hundreds of Trump supporters who, galvanized by the President’s continued denial of the results of the 2020 election, managed to storm the heart of the U.S. government and force an evacuation of Congress. Rather, is was that upon achieving their goal of temporarily suspending the confirmation of the next president of the United States, those participating in the putsch did not proceed to list demands, to barricade the halls against a counter offensive, or even make some sort of public unified statement declaring their undying love and loyalty for their God-Emperor, though many of Trump’s more zealous adherents truly do believe he is. Instead, these crusaders against election fraud spent their time in the hallowed halls of Congress posting, plugging merch, and generating gobs of meme-ready material.
Now as much as this might invoke scorn in our hearts, not only for the fascist insurrection itself, but also for the sheer bone-headedness of the perpetrators who exposed themselves online committing acts of treason, I’d wager to say that most people, no matter what their political affiliation, have no idea how to engage in political action beyond tweeting, following, and finally voting for someone who they may not even particularly like. While political apathy and poor education on political issues certainly play a role, I think it’s worth investigating how and why politics has become more and more something we only do online.
The average American spends about six hours every day on their smartphone, and 24 hours every week online. Between the 40 hours a week this average American spends working, as well as any other social/familial obligations, the logistics of going to and from such obligations, as well as any other activities which require the better half of someone’s attention, and the time commandeered by the virtual world, it’s wondersome if a person truly gets to decide when/how they live.
And as we find ourselves with less time, less energy for things beyond the screen, we are drawn further into that simulation. We begin to seek gratification for basic human needs inside it, and the market, ever willing to supply, colonizes this new virtual landscape with what we can call need-supplements. One of the more salient examples is pornography, which existed long before the internet but through its advent has achieved astounding prevalence and traffic online, with roughly 12% of websites being dedicated to pornography of one form or another. It serves to sexually gratify, gratis, though emotionally somehow even more than empty. By contrast, physical sex requires courtship and interaction with another person; thus in addition to the physical release of sex, it actually produces a bond between partners, no matter how ephemeral that might be.
Porn is the most explicit (to use a double entendre) example of this, but I believe it also manifests in media like podcasts, or vlogs. Humans need conversation, need companionship, and in much the same way that you don’t need to develop a relationship with the porn you’re watching, neither do you need to make friends with the hosts of your favorite podcast. They kibitz, they make you laugh, and you enjoy their presence. But like porn, it’s just spectating: these are not your friends, and the substitute they provide is inadequate.
This is not to say that everyone who listens to podcasts is socially starved, nor that everyone who watches porn is sexually malnourished. Occasional consumption does not imply addiction. But it is when these human need supplements transcend a boundary, become one’s primary form of stimulation, that it can be said they have stopped straddling reality and screen, and have both feet planted in the digital.
To circle back to politics, even in times of incredible dynamism and thriving democracy, it is difficult for individuals to feel like they are in any way making an impact as a political agent. Your vote is likely not going to decide which set of grimy reptile hands Florida falls into, and even if it did, as was the case for those who made up a slim margin in the 2000 election, the powerful have the means to nullify that vote. I would posit that the use of simulation is directly proportional to the attainability of the real’s attainment. We do not simulate ice cream, because ice cream is easily accessible. Friendships, relationships with people who you want to be around for extended periods of time, require work, require nurturing, and all the skills that make one desirable as a companion: humor, honesty, accountability, etc. It’s just easier to buy a tub of ice cream while listening to a podcast.
But, one can effectively and individually bash someone on Twitter, they can declare their support for socialism, or BLM, or prison abolition. Online there’s an outlet for all that frustration, all that justified rancour at the current political establishment. And where, in the past, you might have worked in a factory, lived in crowded neighborhoods among people with common experiences, you might begin to talk, begin to organize, and begin to affect change. But with the advent of suburbs, television, Chapo Trap House’s Matt Chrisman (the host of a podcast) notes, our lives became increasingly atomized. 90 years ago, you inveighed against your boss in a bar, and maybe even got drunk enough to break a few things, 50 years later you communed with the television, and it was your warped telescope that allowed you to see lies from all around the world. No more shared experience, but individualized consumption. And now, in 2021, you interact with a screen. Not with other people online, but people behind screens, which is not a person. To acknowledge personhood requires intimacy, and direct communication. So even in that limited realm of importance you thought you possessed, no even that’s simulated.
But it gives you what members of the Frankfurt school, a group of left leaning social critics of the mid 20th century, would call catharsis; compare it, if it helps, to the orgasm you might experience after masturbation. It is a release of the pent up consternation, a spending of that sexual charge, not for your partner, not for those which socialist, or prison reform would benefit, but on yourself. It is like everything we do today, only another manifestation of consumption.
Of course, we’re encouraged to consume constantly. I guarantee a person will not go five minutes in a day without being urged, in some fashion, to eat, to buy, to watch, to play, something. We have been constructed into self-gratification engines. Politics are, like anything worth doing, partly sacrifice; you might even say politics are mostly sacrifice. It is then in no way surprising that we, now consumers at the core of our being are even less political agents then some victorian, south London shoe shine boy with the stupid hat and the dying mother and everything. Because at least that boy, who like some of you right now watched his mother cough up blood from some foul plague, at least the indignation that street urchin felt manifested itself in physical action, and wasn’t pissed away into the cloud.
Instead of revolution, which today means gradually increasing the minimum wage over half a decade I guess, let me provide you with a viable solution generated by a brain much more prodigious than my own. In his essay “Only Disconnect” the tech/social scholar and writer Evgeny Morozov cites the early 20th century initiatives against noise pollution as a plausible model to fending off the encroaching virtual world. “The anti-noise campaigners of the early twentieth century… sought to make noise into a public problem that ought to be tackled collectively—by turning silence into a right.” If our minds are constantly being co-opted by images, by Twitter alerts, is that not an impingement on our freedom just as much as locking us in a cell? If we are to become again if not effective, than at least real political agents, then we must find some kernel of primordial libidinism, some indomitable strength of spirit, and put it towards regulation which will allow us to access those higher levels of consciousness which have been hijacked by BuzzFeed quizzes. Unfortunately, I don’t know if humans really possess an “indomitable strength of spirit”. Maybe, the human brain is closer to puddy than it is a computer, and is infinitely malleable under the sway of pornography.
- 12 percent of all Internet websites are pornographic. (par. 1)
- According to American phone usage statistics, Americans spend an average of 6.31 hours on the internet daily. (par.1)
- Since 2000, time spent online every week by an average American has risen from 9.4 hours to 23.6. (9)